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"He Showed Me His Other Mouth. He Wanted Me to Kiss Him There.": An Interview with Jacques Debrot

Jacques Debrot has a PhD from Harvard University and chairs the department of Literature and Language at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains. His short fiction appears recently in Pear Noir!, 101 Fiction, and Wigleaf.  In 2013, two of his stories were nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

His story, "I Am Jerzy Kosinski," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Keaton Maddox about literary celebrity, forcing fiction into biography, and dissatisfaction with the realist illusion of traditional narrative.

This piece works as an extensive character study without the protagonist ever being able to speak for himself. Your time line fluctuates order without abandon (with all “interviews” taking place various lengths after Jerzy Kosinski’s suicide) and the setting constantly shifts location as well. What was your thought process for forming the narrative in this way, bit by bit after the fact?

My model for the interviews were the short monologues at the heart of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives.  What appealed to me—in addition to the mimicry the different voices required—was the idea of playing with at least three different chronologies: the timeline of the events in Kosinski’s life, the order of their appearance in the narrative, and the dates at which the interviews occurred. There wasn’t anything to stop me from having an interview conducted in 2012, say, precede another in the story, transpiring in 1991.  Or to place one interview at a Bahamas resort immediately next to another in a New York cancer hospital, or at the Stonewall Inn.  I hoped this would call attention to the story’s constructedness.  I didn’t want to hide the seams.  I wanted the reader to see the raw edges.  But also, I suppose I’m not interested in the kind of effort required to retain the realist illusion. I don’t see the payoff.  I mean, in order to tell the story of somebody’s life in twenty pages, which is one of the things I was trying to do in “Kosinski”, you have to leave out so much.  And if you attempt to accomplish it in a more or less conventional manner you inevitably get caught in the trap of having to account for your elisions, of having to explain and justify them, etc. The aim is to lull the reader into a passive, dreamlike state.  But there are more interesting possibilities for fiction.    

Let’s talk about the second mouth. My first time reading through the story, this was the most confounding part for me. Obviously, Jerzy Kosinski was a real Polish novelist who was confronted with plagiarism allegations and killed himself in 1991. Yet, having all the responding voices reference his second mouth (which was not real), forces the reader to acknowledge this piece as fiction. What was your aim for this inclusion?

In the first drafts of the story, there was no second mouth.  “Kosinski” was pretty much straightforwardly Kosinski. I wanted to merge the different genres of fiction and reportage and biography—or whatever—but I felt I was leaning too hard on the “facts” of Kosinski’s life. The traditional way to write yourself out of this problem is to retain the facts, but give your protagonist the kind of deeply imagined interior life that biographers aren’t permitted to invent.  But I just wasn’t interested in going that route.  And I didn’t want to abandon the facts of Kosinski’s life either because they were precisely what fascinated me.  So I put the story away for a year.  And then one day I picked up Charles Burns’ graphic novel, Black Hole. In the book there’s a type of STD that results in bodily mutations, one of which is growing a second mouth.  And as soon as I read that I immediately knew it’s what I would give Kosinski.  It just seemed to me to be a suggestive metaphor for his being bereft of his original language, Polish—his second mouth—as well as for everything else that he repressed about his life.  It took me a day, I think, to make the revisions.   

What was it about Jerzy Kosinski that led you to want to fictionalize a comprehensive understanding of his life in the wake of his death? How did this play into the title of the piece where a narrator claims himself as the protagonist without ever speaking within the story itself?

An argument could be made that Kosinski was one of the major literary figures of the 1970s.  He won the National Book Award, served two terms as president of PEN, and sold as many books as practically anyone else who was writing serious novels back then. But he seemed just as interested in becoming a celebrity.  And he worked very hard at cultivating an image of someone living on the edge.  He visited sex clubs, he skied and played polo with the super-rich, and he was constantly dropping hints about being a CIA agent, or working for SAVAK, or Israeli intelligence, or the KGB.  It became a part he played on Dick Cavett and the Tonight Show (where he appeared twelve times). And now he’s forgotten.  I don’t think he’s read at all by young writers.  That was one of my anxieties about the story.  I was worried that readers wouldn’t know who he was.  Of course if you become famous for your prose style and it turns out you’re not actually writing a lot of your own work, your books aren’t going to last.  But it also says something more generally true about the half-life of literary reputations.  In the long run everyone will be forgotten.  Anyway, in the original version of my story, the narrators were Kosinski’s ghostwriters.  He had dozens of them, apparently.  So they really could say, “I am Jerzy Kosinski.” But after I went in another direction, I decided not to change the title.  Now, however, it wasn’t an assertion anymore, but a question.  What I heard was, “Am I Jerzy Kosinski?” An identity that never possessed an interiority, in any case.  But was always—even more so, or at least more self-consciously so, than other people’s identities—a fiction.

What are you writing?

Among other things, I’m writing two more absurdist interventions in the lives of real authors.  I think about them and “Kosinski” as a kind of triptych.  The second, recently finished, follows D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, to Lake Chalupa in Mexico.  The third, almost complete, is about William Burroughs. 

What are you reading?

 I’ve been on a Javier Marias kick recently and have just finished The Infatuations and Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me.  Edouard Leve is a writer I’ve just discovered: Suicide and Autoportrait are both very powerful and strange. I think I’ll take up the challenge of Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers. Also I’m reading Michael Gorra’s book about Henry James, Portrait of a Novel, and Ben Jeffery’s take on Michel Houellebecq in Anti-Matter.

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